'Holidate': Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix
A fun concept trapped inside a broad and retrograde movie.

In Netflix's latest rom-com, Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey fall for each other following the rhythm of the calendar year. 

Thriller author Gillian Flynn didn't invent the "cool girl," but she did codify her. She writes in her mindfuck crime novel Gone Girl, "Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding." And then the kicker: "Men actually think this girl exists."        

So do women screenwriters. In Netflix's cranky romantic comedy Holidate, Emma Roberts personifies a Cool Girl who's less defined by her supposedly transgressive tastes, moods and vices than the fact that every woman surrounding her has the intellectual dexterity of an amoeba. Director John Whitesell (Big Momma's House 2) and writer Tiffany Paulsen (Nancy Drew) want you to see Sloane as a refreshingly mordant rom-com protagonist. She smokes cigarettes and hoovers candy. She's unabashedly raunchy. She sneers at feminine expectations.        

Sloane is the kind of woman who grunts "Don't be such a pussy!" at her friends. And when a dude tells her, "By the way, your tits look exceptional in that dress,” she embraces the objectification. Roberts' aunt Julia remains the paradigm of the seductively unrefined late 20th century Cool Girl. Emma bitchifies the archetype.        

To boost Sloane's relatability, Whitesell and Paulsen twist and stretch her female friends, relatives and acquaintances into goopy twits incapable of contemplating anything but men. Her carping mother's entire goal in life is to make sure her twenty-something daughter is paired off. Her conventional older sister is swallowed up by marriage and four kids. Her cougar aunt bangs anything in sight. Even strangers in bathrooms obsess over the perfect proposal and the perfect ring. No wonder Sloane seems shrewd compared to these nattering numbskulls. But you don't need to dim all the other women to let your heroine shine.          

Sloane's problem starts at Christmas. As her family gathers for another holiday where everyone in the house preens and plumes in the warm glow of the winter lights, she cowers outside on her mom's stoop, finishing a ciggy and dreading the fervor. It's another holiday where her mother (Frances Fisher) will chastise her for still being single, her Aunt Susan (Kristin Chenoweth) will drip off the lap of an ephemeral conquest and her siblings (Jessica Capshaw and Jake Manley) will vaunt their domestic bliss.        

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, Luke Bracey's hunky Australian transplant Jackson (can't have a Sloane without a Jackson, natch) accompanies a casual hook-up to her parents' house to stave off holiday loneliness, only to find himself hostage to everyone's hyperbolized expectations for commitment. (Don't forget: Every chick here but Sloane is a man-eating dum-dum!)        

The next day, he and Sloane clash-cute in the returns line at the mall. One thing leads to another, and their mutual holiday bitterness yields a pact: Instead of forcing themselves through another alienating day of ritual festivity, they will be each other's "holidates" for the year: a platonic plus-one they'll only see when they need a low-stakes companion for celebrations. (And if you miss the title explanation the first time, don't worry, the characters repeat the concept multiple times throughout the script in a desperate bid to launch a catchphrase.)         

So, through New Year's, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and everything else in between, Sloane and Jackson  stick to their plan with inevitably zany results, like accidental amputations. They only contact each other for these one-off hangouts, cementing their friendship over time while simultaneously succumbing to the psycho-sexual traps they set out to avoid. These friendly acquaintances literally see each other more regularly than I do any of my closest friends in a calendar year.        

It's a fun conceit trapped in a broad and retrograde flick. Cynical rom-coms are nothing new You're the Worst, Palm Springs, Trainwreck, Destination Wedding and Plus One have led the pack just in the last few years alone  but Holidate distinguishes itself only through its reliance on boorish slapstick, exaggeration and vulgarity. In a Bridesmaids rip-off, Sloane rushes to a bathroom after accidentally ingesting laxatives, unable to pry herself out of the corset of a pirate wench's costume. In another sequence, a pair of little girls, no older than seven, each proclaim, "I wanna be a whore!" This is what passes for joke-telling in Holidate.        

Sloane is a likable pain-in-the-ass, her character surprisingly endearing instead of grating thanks to Roberts' acidic petulance and whiny vulnerability: My few laughs during the movie erupted whenever Sloane sank into the self-hatred of singledom, pathetically whimpering and hyperventilating over the ex that left her cold to the obvious fizziness between her and Jackson. Roberts' signature grimace, perfected during her years on American Horror Story, kept me going through the at-times interminable hour-forty-five.

Bracey, meanwhile, exudes a studly Hemsworthy sort of charm playing Jackson as a stolid straight man to Roberts' wacko misanthrope. Still, it seems we really just root for them because they're shown to be the only reasonable human beings in existence.        

The least comfortable parts of the film, however, aren't the cringey gags or sexist tropes, but the fantasies of pre-pandemic life. People pack malls and grocery stores without masks, families frequently gather for milestone events without worrying about infecting grandma and lovers travel the world for their happily-ever-afters. Frankly, I don't daydream about kissing beefy blond Australians; I daydream about cramming onto airplanes. 

Cast: Emma Roberts, Luke Bracey, Kristin Chenoweth, Frances Fisher, Jessica Capshaw, Manish Dayal, Jake Manley
Directed by: John Whitesell
Written by: Tiffany Paulsen
Produced by: McG, Mary Viola
Premieres: Wednesday, October 28th (Netflix)